The field of music writing, or ‘music criticism’, as some writers ostentatiously term it, is currently pretty undignified and embarrassing.
Count the thinkpieces about what music criticism should be. In the intro to one such piece published on FasterLouder, which compiled a Facebook debate on this very question, editor Darren Levin writes that the ongoing exchange on this topic is proof that it is being done right.
Actually, this is wrong. Good criticism does not ignite debate about what constitutes good or bad criticism, it ignites debate about whatever subject that piece of criticism is addressing.
Whether it’s the singer from Jezabels criticising critics, or Lorde and Iggy Azalea questioning why individual publications don’t establish an editorial consensus on artists, the result has been the same: music writers eagerly taking the opportunity to justify themselves. Here’s an opportunity to defend a practice which is currently not taken very seriously at all. No one stops to think whether their approach is actually shit, because ‘the rules’. These rules are irrelevant.
The problem is, a lot of what the antagonists in this debate say is true. The singer from Jezabels is right to criticise the Australian music media’s preference for serious male-dominated rock music, and Joel Connelly is right to say that a lot of writing on music is garbage. He’s probably arrived at that conclusion differently to me, but broadly he’s correct.
The reason for this is that music publications still operate under the pretense of authority. No Australian critic writing 200 words about a new American indie band’s ‘magnum opus’ is authoritative, especially when its strewn with multi-syllabic adjectives and cliches. No music publication can be authoritative when it simply operates to reach an audience already established by more respected outlets, in the hope their verdicts will resonate too. Because in the end, few verdicts resonate. Abolish the verdict.
Every successful music website is successful because of either a) brand heritage or b) because it has or had its own angle. The latter leads to the former. Look at Pitchfork, Fact, The Quietus, and closer to home M+N - they approach coverage, or did so in their formative years, in a way no one else did. And that’s why they are respected: because they sunk a line into a certain niche and when the time was right, dragged that niche through a whole lot of uncharted waters.
In the end, no reader cares whether some random person writing for a random website thinks the new Lorde album is good or not. At least not until Lorde or Jezabels pull them up on it. These artists are questioning, at heart, what qualifies writers to provide a verdict, and that’s a totally valid question. My answer would be that nothing qualifies them, because mastheads determine that qualification in the end. Everyone else needs to try harder.